A 1950s Suicide-Bombed SoCal Cult Became a Precursor to Manson
Brother Charles playing with his dogs outside Fountain of the World sanctuary in 1961
Valley Times Collection/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
It was a little after 2 a.m. on December 10, 1958. One minute Dorothy Hamm was snug asleep in her bed, the next she was wide awake, having been thrown to the ground by some powerful explosion. She ran outside and saw a “wall of flame gushing over the crest of a hill” about a mile away. The sound of screaming and crying soared through the whipping wind. Dorothy ran into her house and called the police.
Closer to the scene, a young woman who called herself Sister Barbara had also been jarred awake by the explosion. Sister Barbara was a member of the World Knowledge Faith Love Fountain of the World cult, and had been sleeping in her dormitory at the group’s rustic 20-acre compound in Box Canyon, outside of Chatsworth. “I looked out the window and saw the reflection of flames all over the hillside,” she would later recall. “I said, ‘Oh, look out there. It’s positively beautiful out there.’ By that time Priest Leta woke up and said, ‘I think we’d better find out what that beautiful is coming from.’”
The answer would change their lives forever.
The W.K.F.L. Fountain of the World was founded in 1948. Its leader was a man who called himself Krishna Venta. Venta, who was called “the Master” by his 100-odd followers, was a handsome charismatic. His long hair and beard, yellow robes and dirty, bare-feet were used by his followers as proof that he was, as he said, the reincarnation of Christ. On the surface, Venta was a proto-new-age hippie who preached equality, service and tolerance. But in reality, he was a far more nefarious figure, both in his doctrines and in his actions.
Krishna was born Francis Herman Pencovic in San Francisco in 1911. Of Jewish-Russian descent, Pencovic took to the rails as a teenager, bumming all over Depression-era America. He was arrested for numerous small crimes, including burglary, check fraud and, most disturbingly, writing threatening letters to President Roosevelt. In 1937, he married a woman named Lucyle, who gave birth to two sons. He worked odd jobs in the shipyards of Oakland and as a boiler maker in Berkeley. He also spent time in jail and a mental institution. After divorcing Lucyle and briefly joining the Army, Pencovic met his second wife, Ruth, in Salt Lake City in 1946. They would go on to have six children.
1946 seems to have been a pivotal year in the life of Pencovic. While in the Pacific Northwest, he became fascinated with the Mormon religion, particularly its belief in the “Melchizedek Priesthood.” He came to believe that his body had become host to “Christ Everlasting,” whose soul “had commandeered to Earth from the planet Neophrates on a convoy of rocket ships whose passengers included Adam and Eve.” He claimed to have no visible navel, changed his name to Krishna Venta, altered his appearance to look more “Christ-like” and began to tour the country giving lectures outlining his expanding, meandering theology.
Along the way, Venta and his wife, now called Sister Ruth, attracted a small number of followers. Followers turned over all possessions and money to the group, grew their hair and beards long, dropped their surnames and went barefoot “as a symbol of service and humility.” They also wore robes of various colors, each denoting their rank and skills. Nurses wore blue, kitchen workers wore brown, students wore green and so on. They lived their lives based on the teachings of the Ten Commandments and Krishna’s Eleven Tenants, outlined in one of many promotional leaflets distributed by the group:
The Fountain way of life — or should we say philosophy — is consolidated in a brief manner in the 11 rules.
1. To forget the outside world.
2. To become familiar with the inside workings of one’s self.
3. To become unified with one another spiritually, mentally and physically.
4. To forget self.
5. To create a desire within one’s self toward higher spiritual equality.
6. To obtain wisdom.
7. To search for understanding in all things.
8. To face problems without thought of escape.
9. To become absorbed in love toward all things, seen and unseen, and so fulfill the laws of God.
10. To let the spirt descend upon you.
11. To become a teacher, not in the world, but in the Fountain, that all men who come out of the world shall find comfort in our midst.
In 1949, the growing group of “Fountaineers” bought around 20 acres of forlorn land in a glen of the Santa Susana Mountains off Box Canyon Road. This otherworldly land, dotted with sycamores, oaks, large boulders and caves, had formerly been inhabited by the Berry family, who had fashioned one of the large caves on the property into a functioning home. Venta lived in this cave for a time, until the men of the commune built more permanent structures. Soon, a large sign (still existent today) greeted visitors: “Ye who enter here enter in upon holy ground.” Sister Barbara described the small community as it appeared in 1954:
The Fountain was a large acreage with many different buildings on it. There was a dormitory for men and one for women. The main building had an upper and lower dining area, then a hobby room, kitchen and two fireplaces. We even had two trees that grew right in the buildings and up through the roof. The brothers had constructed the buildings out of large rocks, wood and glass … the lower dining area doubled as the church on Sunday and as a theater on Saturday nights. There was no grass on the property, just packed dirt, so that being barefoot was no problem. There were lots of trees, and the temperature, being southern California, was just right.
The men and women of the commune worked six days a week, living the hard and meager life of subsistence farming pioneers, while Venta toured everywhere from Europe to South America, attempting to convert more sheep to the flock. Children were raised communally but sent to local schools, and the group ate a primarily vegetarian diet. They became part of the local community, participating in holiday parades, distributing a Fountain newspaper and sending their choir to entertain folks in the area.
The Fountain was considered harmless by their rural neighbors, who often gave them extra food on visits to the compound, which was surprisingly open to all visitors and guests. Neighbors attended the Fountain’s Four Holy Days, starting on March 29, during which time Christmas, Easter and the Resurrection, and all Fountain marriages were celebrated. The group was considered so benign that there wasn’t even much of a fuss when Venta was “crucified” each year, complete with fake blood and stigmata, as part of the annual Resurrection pageant.
Brother Martin, one of the cult leaders, tells of hearing a stranger arguing with other members. He says the stranger carried a small canvas bag. It is believed the explosives were in that bag.
Herald-Examiner Collection/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Part of the reason for this good will was the fact that the members of the Fountain quickly became known as fearless do-gooders in times of emergency. Living their mantra of “love in action,” they worked to save passengers from the deadly Standard Airline crash of 1949 that killed 36 people. Actress Caren Marsh, who survived the crash, recalled thinking for a moment that she had died — because angel like men in long robes were walking around her. Firefighters became used to the sight of Fountain nuns delivering food in the middle of a burning forest, or parachuting into the scene of a disaster.
Not surprisingly, good publicity began to come the Fountain’s way, including a spread in Look magazine and this glowing writeup in the Los Angeles Times:
The WKFL, Fountain of the World, [is] a religious service fellowship, devoted to helping mankind in any time of emergency or catastrophe. Brothers of the order were at the Bakersfield and Tehachapi earthquakes almost before the ground ceased trembling. They have rendered valued and fearless aid at the scenes of plane crashes, forest fires, floods and other disasters. Initials of this organization, founded by Krishna Venta, bearded philosopher and teacher, stand for Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love; it aims to provide spiritual upliftment, economic security, spiritual love and scientific development for those joining it. Communal living is provided on 20 acres owned by the group in Box Canyon, where they moved in 1949. A home is provided “for all who want to live the Ten Commandments,” regardless of race or creed,” a spokesman said.
But all was not as it appeared. When Venta was home, he spent countless hours lecturing his disciples on the darker parts of his doctrine. Venta, like many cult leaders, ardently believed that the end of days was fast approaching, and that only his followers would be spared its horrors.
Using the book of Revelations as a loose template, Venta preached that it was his duty to gather 144,000 men, women and children before World War III, which would be fought between communist Russia and capitalistic America, engulfed the planet. He claimed that a race war between blacks and whites would ignite America in 1965. At this point, he and his followers would go to a secret location, perhaps in the desert, to wait out the war. The Russians would back black Americans, only to forsake them once they had taken over America and the rest of the world. With a godless Russia in charge of all, Venta and his followers would eventually spring into action:
After the 40-year period, the 144,000 elect will go out into the world, without guns or ammunition of any kind to protect them. All they will have for their defense is the spirit of God and the love of their fellowmen. When they go out, they will do so to extend their love to their fellowmen-not their hate.
And thus the world would be saved- love, harmony and Venta would rule.
Venta often berated his followers, threatening to leave if they did not meet his exacting standards. “I am your shepherd, you are the sheep,” he admonished them during one meeting. “When I organized this, I wanted a heaven on earth, why not give it your all?”
Giving their all included supplying the Master with money to indulge in one of his greatest passions: gambling. This self-described Christ could often be found at the craps tables in Reno and Vegas, although he “always lost, both at the wheel and at the one-armed bandit.” However, his followers continued to give him money, holding to “their theory that the ‘master’ must be endowed with good luck which would bring more money to the organization.”
This recklessness with money was compounded by his refusal to pay child-support to his first wife, Lucyle. The decade-long battle culminated in 1956 with his arrest for contempt of court. “Leader of cult trades robes for jail dungarees,” papers blared, while Venta’s followers marched outside the courthouse holding signs that read “Persecuted for lifelong devotion to God.”
Not all those who spent time on the compound were so forgiving of Venta’s obvious flaws. “He felt he did not have to follow the philosophies he put forth. He also would do anything to gain attention to himself. I believed he was hypocritical,” David Lackstrom, whose family lived in Box Canyon briefly, remembered. “Most people there at the time wanted to believe he was the second coming; and they excused his human traits of smoking cigars, gambling, and driving way above the speed limit. To me he had no humor, only a holier than thou attitude.”
By 1956, it seems Venta was feeling the heat. Not only was the law breathing down his neck, Fountain members had also been banned from helping firefighters because of insurance liability. In preparation for the coming race war, Venta took advantage of homesteading laws in Alaska, and sent Sister Ruth and a group of followers to start a new compound outside Homer, Alaska. He planned to leave Box Canyon and join them, telling a local paper, “We’ll try to dispose of it before we go. If we have to, we’ll just pick up and go.”
Soon, Venta was predicting that he “would be cremated,” and that “violence would come” to members of the Fountain. On December 8, 1958, two disgruntled former Fountain members, Peter Kamenoff (aka Brother Elizbah) and Ralph Muller (aka Brother Jeroham) paid a visit to the office of James H. Mulvey, an investigator for the California District Attorney. Although fellow Fountaineers would almost unanimously claim the men were usurpers, alcoholics and, in the case of Kamenoff, a violent wife beater, the men told Mulvey a very different story.
They claimed Venta was a sexual predator, embezzler and illegally practicing medicine. “I am here,” Muller told Mulvey, “because I feel that it would be a good thing for society if something could be accomplished to eliminate him. That is my only motive.” He asked if Venta could be prosecuted. “If you get a confession on which I can prosecute, then, of course I will,” Mulvey responded.
Muller and Kamenoff seem to have taken Mulvey’s words to heart. On the evening of December 9, the men drove to the Box Canyon compound in an old pickup, packed with a crate of 20, foot-long sticks of dynamite. They recorded a bizarre tape, outlining their grievances and plans, before heading into the main building on the compound, the dynamite now wrapped around Muller’s body.
Just before 2 a.m., Brother Martin, a recent convert, saw Krishna Venta and his main aide, Cardinal Gene Shanafelt, arguing with a man he had never seen. “The conversation stopped abruptly when I entered the door,” Brother Martin recalled. “I saw that I was intruding, excused myself and decided to return to my quarters. I had gone about an eighth of a mile, I guess, and was on a small rise in the path, I turned, I have no idea why, and at that moment my ears were shattered by a most terrible explosion. The roof of the monastery literally blew off the building. Rather, it seemed as if it was lifted off, then disintegrated. A tower of blue and white flame erupted into the sky.”
In the boys' dormitory next door, 10 boys awoke, including Venta’s 11-year-old son, Sharva. “The roof fell in on top of us. Everything seemed to catch on fire,” Sharva recalled. “Our beds, the walls, our clothes and all of our possessions.” Miraculously all the boys escaped, and did what they had been trained to do: help. “After we got out we all joined in and did our best to stop the spreading fire and prevent it from burning any of the other buildings. It hardly seemed like not more than five minutes had passed after we left the dormitory than it was burned completely to the ground … It was horrible … horrible.”
Firefighters and police, alerted by Dorothy Hamm, rushed to the gruesome scene; bits of flesh were everywhere and a child’s nightgown hung from a tall tree branch. All that remained of the main building was a lone fire place and a small rock partition. The remaining cult members knelt among the smoldering ruins and prayed.
Lael Venta, 8, left, and Sharva Venta, 11, survived the bombing that killed their father, cult leader Krishna Venta. Here they greet their mother, Ruth Venta, as she arrives at Los Angeles International Airport.
Herald-Examiner Collection/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
In all, 10 people died in the explosion. They included Krishna Venta, Cardinal Gene, the two bombers, a seven-year-old girl and an eleven-month-old infant. Venta was identified by his dental plate. After waiting for his resurrection, Sister Ruth eventually had Venta buried at Valhalla Memorial Park, in North Hollywood.
“The Master’s creed is to be positive, creative and constructive in everything that you think, say and do,” Fountain member Sister Mary told a reporter. “We are trying very hard to react to this as the Master would want us to … that is to be cheerful and positive. For mourning is negative.” The cult slowly rebuilt its infrastructure, but lost many of its members. A few soldiered on, continuing to preach the Master’s word both in Alaska and Box Canyon.
And at some point, perhaps in 1968, an-ex con would visit the dwindling compound in Box Canyon, and learn of the prophesies of Krishna Venta. Soon he would be indoctrinating his own followers just down the road at Spahn Ranch. He too envisioned a race war, a haven in the desert, and his eventual triumphant rule. His name was Charles Manson, and his war, which would soon terrorize Los Angeles, was called Helter Skelter.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.